Pretty Modern: Beauty, Sex, and Plastic Surgery in Brazil
In this well-crafted ethnography, anthropologist Alexander Edmonds explores narratives and practices surrounding plastic surgery in contemporary Brazil. Cosmetic procedures, or estetica, have been increasing rapidly among the urban populations. Rather than simply lamenting the increase of plastic surgeries in a country famous for embracing the sensual, Edmonds instead explores the reasons why estetica has become so popular across race, class, and gender lines. Examining beauty culture in Brazil from an ethnographic perspective, he suggests in Pretty Modern that it is essential to understand what beauty means and does for differently located social actors.
Arguing that anthropologists have typically ignored the aesthetics and erotic allure of beauty, he instead takes practices such as plastic surgery seriously for what they can reveal about the fears and aspirations of urban Brazilians. He begins from the premise that perceptions and acts of beautification can only be understood within specific moments and relationships, and he set out to explore the locations where definitions of beauty are defined and negotiated: cosmetic surgery clinics, public hospitals, TV studios, favelas, cafes, and homes.
Edmonds interviewed and observed plastic surgeons, celebrities, fashion models, low-income domestic workers, media producers, and housewives in order to make sense of the increasing popularity of plastic surgery. He shadowed doctors, students, and patients in hospitals and clinics to observe consultations, surgeries, and trainings. Additionally, he engaged with images and stories of plastic surgery in popular culture through ethnographic observations of media production sites and textual analysis of magazines dedicated to estetica.
Throughout Pretty Modern, Edmonds follows two simultaneous lines of analysis. First, he uses the specific socio-historical circumstances of contemporary Brazil to shed light on the significance of beauty and cosmetic surgery. At the same time, he uses the desire for beauty as a point of entry to examine the larger tensions and anxieties of modernizing Brazil, specifically the effects of the global capitalist economy, market inequalities, and consumer culture.
The book is organized into three interrelated sections, which each focus on plastic surgery in relation to a particular domain of modern experience: medicine and psychology, race and nation, and gender and sexuality. First, Edmonds provides a genealogy of self-esteem and shows how this concept has allowed plastic surgery to be mobilized as treatment for mental suffering. He situates this analysis in the longer history of medical and therapeutic techniques of self-governance in Brazil and examines how the redefinition of cosmetic surgery as a method of “aesthetic health” has produced a language of rights around these practices.
Next, Edmonds contextualizes current beauty practices through Brazilian nationalism and local racial politics, and explores the historically specific ways that color, beauty, and power intersect. He unpacks the aesthetics of race and the scientific racism that imbues discussions of beauty and appearance in past and present Brazil.
Finally, Edmonds examines the role of cosmetic surgery in relation to the larger political economy of female reproduction. Specifically, he shows the ways that plastic surgery highlights the tensions between women’s roles as sexual and maternal subjects and argues that plastic surgeries have become naturalized as part of women’s health along with cesareans and tubal litigations.
Edmond’s thorough analysis is shaped by his engagement with broader literatures on Brazilian history and anthropology, capitalist modernity, neoliberal subjectivity, and the political economy of desire. However, Pretty Modern also reflects the best aspects of ethnographic research and writing: thick descriptions of personalities, spaces, and encounters; detailed accounts of conversations with a wide array of people; and a refusal to ignore or explain away the contradictions that shape people’s perceptions and practices in everyday life.